Today’s post is a continuation of yesterday’s interview with Rabbi Shlomo Kay (not his real name). We continued to discuss the financial viability of the kollel lifestyle for future generations. However, the conversation veered off into personal interests outside of Torah study; interests which compelled Shlomo to venture into the online world of Twitter.
The interview reveals a man with more liberal views than one would normally ascribe to a former Lakewood talmid. In fact, Shlomo was a surprise to me in general. At first, I assumed that he might be a baal teshuvah, due to his intelligent observations regarding religion, politics, and economics. However, it turned out that Shlomo grew up chasidish and by his own admission,
“My formal secular education, if you can call it that, ended at grade 8.”
Speaking with Shlomo has made me confront stereotypes that I have held about those in the haredi community. Since the haredi community generally eschews college education, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that they are less intelligent than their more modern orthodox counterparts. For many chasidim, for example, English is a second language to Yiddish. That language barrier immediately makes for miscommunication. Secular education, at least for boys, often ends around grade 8 – yet another reason to claim intellectual superiority for those of us with college degrees.
However, while Shlomo might not have had an extensive limudei chol education, he has had an extensive limudei kodesh education. He has learned with the best and brightest in both chasidic and litvish yeshivas. It is a testament to his brilliance that, even without a secular higher education, he expresses himself so eloquently and displays such an aptitude for discussion and analysis on a wide variety of topics.
I think the kind of stereotyping facing chasidim today is similar to that which immigrants coming to America in previous centuries faced. Mistaking language and cultural barriers for a lower level of general aptitude is a common error.
After speaking with Shlomo, I also realize that it’s a mistake to think that the haredi yeshivish life is based on a communal sense of entitlement. As Shlomo said in Part I of the interview, most young couples enter the kollel life assuming that the husband will go to work at some point. That naïve and distant plan is shattered when the time comes for its implementation and there are no jobs available.
Below is Part II of my interview with Shlomo.
I asked Shlomo how a kollel couple can afford to have the husband learn and the wife work long term, especially after having a kids.
“People starting kollel planned to get jobs in chinuch, but it’s not happening for most of them. However, Lakewood is set up for the (kollel) lifestyle. Babysitting is cheap, many are supported by parents, and (both men and women have) opened successful businesses. Overhead and advertising costs are low because (many are) basement businesses. However, at some point it has to come crashing to a halt. People need not just money, but an occupation. Most people are not cut out to learn for the rest of their life without a normal job and most people never intended to stay forever.”
I asked Shlomo if he could think of an example of someone who had found an unusually lucrative career after their years in kollel.
“One person became a lawyer after years of learning. However, you have to be able to afford to do that and be educated (bright) enough – (there is) lots of catch up to do.”
I wanted to know if there has been a rise in charitable collections for kollel families. Are people having a harder time making ends meet as the generations of working grandparents and parents die out? Who will subsequent generations depend upon financially, if their own parents are also products of the kollel system?
“There is no rise in the number of people collecting (door to door) for themselves. (The solution for many is to) open a small business. You don’t see much (outward) poverty in Lakewood. The only people you see collecting for (their own needs) are from Israel. People are working in Borough Park and Williamsburg. Those who aren’t have some kind of plan in place – (usually involving) government entitlements.”
“Many people are eligible (for government assistance), but they can’t do much with food stamps. Until the (recent) affordable health care act, it was probably harder to go to work. You would have to make a lot of money for it to be worth working. (Insurance can cost) $1500 per month. If you make less than, say, $40,000 you can get free health insurance, but if you make over $40,000 (you must pay for health insurance). There is little incentive to work if the job will not overcome that gap.”
I switched topics and asked Shlomo why he signed up for Twitter.
“I signed on to read, and 140 characters or less is pretty appealing to me! A certain amount of equality (exists on Twitter). If I make a point (about an article) the writer may (directly) respond.”
“I take an interest in and follow other yeshivish or chasidish people. I find it fascinating, (for example) @GroynemOx, he seems to keep shabbos and follows an economic theory that is more to the left politically than, Paul Krugman’s from the New York Times. (Krugman’s theories) are among the most progressive in the country! I became interested in monetary theory myself personally and it’s interesting to find another chasidic person who also became interested. Groynem Ox is more vocal and seems to be a more fervent follower than me of theories such as MMT (modern monetary theory).”
“Charedim are usually more right wing (in their politics). It usually comes from the fact that they only have access to the radio. (They tend to listen to) conservative right wing talk radio. Also, the Yated newspaper (a Jewish newspaper printed in Hebrew and English editions) is the voice of Rush Limbaugh.”
“I find it interesting that people who benefit from government entitlements are so against it! Finding a kid who grew up chasidic (Groynem Ox) who is so progressive is interesting to me.”
“(I don’t) often get to interact with people from different angles of frumkeit. (It’s interesting to see) what my religion looks like to other people. Until you see it from other people’s perspectives, (you don’t realize that it’s) not all positive. You recently wrote a post (critiquing your former viewpoint on why people leave orthodoxy). Seeing it from other people’s perspectives changes your perspective, which has its positives and negatives.”
I asked Shlomo why he wanted to risk seeing his religion negatively. Why open up a can of worms by going online?
At this point, Shlomo shared with me a treatise he drafted for himself, “The 13 Principles of My (Charedi) Religion.”